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Question Corner: Cremation ashes

First slide

Flags in church?

Q. When I was at Mass yesterday, the congregation sang a rousing rendition of "God Bless America." That brought to my mind the flag issue. I have been in many Catholic churches of late — especially for funerals — and I have not seen a single flag. What is the Catholic Church's stance on American flags on the altar? (Niskayuna, N.Y.)

A. Some might be surprised to know that there are currently no regulations regarding the display of national flags in churches — neither in the church's Code of Canon Law nor in the books that govern the celebration of the liturgy. That matter is left to the judgment of the diocesan bishop who often, in turn, delegates the decision to the local pastor.

Under the heading of prayer and worship, the U.S. national bishops' conference does say on its website:

"The bishops' Committee on the Liturgy has in the past encouraged pastors not to place the flag within the sanctuary itself, in order to reserve that space for the altar, the ambo, the presidential chair and the tabernacle. Instead, the suggestion has been made that the American flag be placed outside the sanctuary, or in the vestibule of the church."

Prayer to St. Michael

Q. I had attended a nearby Catholic church for more than 20 years. But now I have been driving 40 minutes to another parish because of changes to restore "old traditions" at my local parish.

One of them is the common recitation of the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel immediately after Mass. I find it inappropriate to speak of St. Michael and Satan right after we have been charged to "go in peace to love and serve the Lord."

At my former parish, I felt hostage to a small minority who tried to control my post-Mass thoughts and feelings instead of letting me leave Mass with the joy of the Eucharist. (Iowa)

A. The prayer to St. Michael was part of a group of prayers called the Leonine prayers that were said in Catholic churches following Mass from 1884 until 1965. They were originally introduced by Pope Leo XIII and stemmed from a vision he reportedly had of Satan wanting to destroy the church.

The intention for which the prayers were said changed over time. Originally, they were offered for the temporal sovereignty of the Holy See but later began to be said for the conversion of Russia.

During the Second Vatican Council, a Vatican instruction implementing the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy decreed that the Leonine prayers were suppressed and would no longer be used. But the recitation of the prayer to St. Michael has been making a "comeback," and a number of parishes are now reciting that prayer following Mass.

There has been no official church declaration that this prayer should be resurrected; if your parish is using it, that is most likely a determination by the local pastor — although it could simply be the choice of a group of parishioners who have decided to pray together after Mass.

Editor's note: As a number of Arlington diocese parishes routinely recite the prayer to St. Michael following Mass, its brief history is presented here.

Cremation ashes

Q. I understand that Catholics can't spread out ashes over the ocean after cremation — and that ashes can only be buried or kept at home. Both my sister and her daughter are Catholics. My sister told me that she has instructed her daughter to use her ashes as fertilizer on plants or trees after cremation. Is this allowed? (Honolulu)

A. This question — and many similar ones that I receive — reflects readers' continuing fascination with the disposition of bodily remains. You are correct in your understanding — almost.

The church teaches that ashes from cremation should be buried or entombed in sacred ground — but not kept at home. In the church's mind, cremated remains should be treated with the same reverence as the body of a deceased person.

In 2016, the Vatican issued an instruction regarding burial practices for Catholics. That document specified that either the body or the ashes of the deceased should be buried in sacred ground and that cremains should not be kept in private homes or scattered on land or at sea, nor "preserved in mementoes, pieces of jewelry or other objects."

Burial in sacred ground, said the Vatican, prevents the deceased from being forgotten and encourages family members and the wider Christian community to remember the deceased and to pray for them.

The church's Code of Canon Law continues to express a preference for burial over cremation because it more clearly expresses the Christian belief in an eventual resurrection when the person's body and soul will be reunited. As for using the cremains for fertilizer, that is in no way envisioned in Catholic teaching — or permitted.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021